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John Boyne: Why I support trans rights but reject the word ‘cis’

An early episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge features the eponymous chat-show host fawning over a libidinous agony aunt, Daniella Forrest, and becoming over-excited when she kisses him. As the interview progresses, he learns that Daniella used to be Daniel and his desire immediately turns to disgust. The name-calling begins – freak, pervert, weirdo – and Daniella becomes the target of his jokes for the rest of the show.

I doubt it was particularly funny back then but, 25 years later, it seems even less so, harking back to a time when anyone who didn’t conform to rigid stereotypes of gender or sexuality were routinely mocked on television. Nowadays, the show would be taken off the air in a heartbeat and Steve Coogan’s phone would blow up quicker than a Samsung Note 7 under a storm of outraged social media fury.

Film and television may have been slow to accept the new normal, but writers have been exploring the subject of transgender identities for years. Gore Vidal famously wrote of both Myra and Myron Breckinridge in the 1960s, while John Irving introduced the world to Roberta Muldoon, a former NFL football player, in The World According to Garp a decade later.

There’s always the potential for violence when a man feels sexually humiliated in front of other men

The young adult genre is where the most challenging subjects can often be found. Writers such as Melvin Burgess, Kevin Brooks and Louise O’Neill have tackled complex issues like drugs, kidnap and rape while the British writer Juno Dawson, a transgender woman, has been fearless in both her work and her public persona, becoming a crucial advocate among children for normalising what was once considered taboo.

Having published five books for younger readers, three of which featured wartime settings, I wanted to write something more contemporary with my sixth but came to this subject from a place of relative ignorance. As a gay man, I’m part of the G in the LGBTQ acronym, but my experiences with the Ls, the Bs, the Ts and the Qs are no more or less than anyone else’s.

However, a friend of mine, born a boy, came out as transgender in his early 20s and over the last few years has been both struggling with and embracing his new identity. My friend was a very good-looking boy, slight of build, with delicate features, and has benefitted considerably from his genetic make-up, for she’s now an extremely beautiful young woman, one who would turn heads on the street. I assumed this would be a great boon to her and was surprised when she told me that it can actually be dangerous, for she regularly gets hit on by straight men who, inebriated in a nightclub or bar, might not be as generous or “woke” when they realise that she is trans. There’s always, my friend explained to me, the potential for violence when a man feels sexually humiliated in front of other men.

This conversation led me to writing My Brother’s Name is Jessica. The novel is narrated by a 12-year-old boy, Sam, who has always looked up to and adored his older brother, Jason. At the end of the opening chapter, Jason sits down with his family to tell them that he believes he has been born into the wrong body and the novel explores Sam’s journey to both understanding the subject and accepting his brother – his sister – for who she is.

John Boyne: I’m apprehensive about how the book will be received by the trans community but I hope they’ll feel I’ve treated the subject with care. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty

I felt it was important to write the novel from the perspective of the nontrans character as it allowed me to express Sam’s own confusions and misunderstandings and employ some of the inadvertently hurtful remarks that he makes while his family is going through a period of crisis. Sam doesn’t like what’s happening, he’s embarrassed by it and is bullied in school. Unaccustomed to such adult problems, he pours his anger out on the person he insistently refers to as “my brother Jason” in ever more wilful and cruel ways.

While writing the book I spoke to several trans people, as well as an Inclusion Ambassador at Inclusive Minds , an organisation dedicated to promoting diversity and equality in children’s literature. Going on a similar journey to Sam, I was trying to understand an experience that was new to me. I asked stupid questions at times, and probably made some ill-informed remarks, but I wanted to understand the subject from the perspective of those who have gone through it.

The most important thing, I realised, was that too many people focus on the surgical rather than the emotional aspects of transgender life. Time and again I was told off for not realising that there is more to the subject than whether or not someone has a penis and it’s something that my character, Jessica, previously Jason, points out to Sam. “Why is that the only thing you ever think about?” she asks, infuriated when her brother wonders whether hormone tablets will make her dick fall off. “Don’t you realise that me being the gender I’m supposed to be has absolutely nothing to do with what’s going on in my pants? You’re so focused on that, you don’t care what’s going on in my mind or the rest of my body.”

One thing I know for sure is that women can look after themselves just fine and they don’t need a man to do the job for them

Many of these debates are being played out in the murky and discourteous world of Twitter, a place where adults go to scream at each other. Much attention has been given of late to the antics of Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted, who spends an inordinate amount of time tweeting on the subject. At best, he seems like one of his own creations, roaring “down with this sort of thing” to anyone who’ll listen, while at worst he comes across as someone masking intolerance by promoting himself as a champion of women. And look, I may not be the world’s greatest authority on the latter, but one thing I know for sure is that women can look after themselves just fine and they don’t need a man to do the job for them.

However, it would be inaccurate to suggest that one side of this debate is populated by a bunch of sexually-insecure bigots while the other is filled with kind, good-tempered free spirits. Following the debate online, I’ve been surprised by the aggression of some and their rush to condemn. Martina Navratilova has been labelled transphobic for questioning where trans women should compete in professional sports. Navratilova is a heroine, a fearless advocate for gay rights over many decades. For anyone to suggest that a person of her courage is phobic about anything is to deliberately ignore her history and also suggests that there is no safe place for people to debate these topics without being branded an enemy. Quite frankly, Martina Navratilova is to bigotry as Donald Trump is to literacy.

And while I wholeheartedly support the rights of trans men and women and consider them courageous pioneers, it will probably make some unhappy to know that I reject the word “cis”, the term given by transgender people to their nontransgender brethren. I don’t consider myself a cis man; I consider myself a man. For while I will happily employ any term that a person feels best defines them, whether that be transgender, non-binary or gender fluid to name but a few, I reject the notion that someone can force an unwanted term onto another.

My hope is that My Brother’s Name is Jessica will not just help inform young people but will also allow them to ask questions – stupid questions at times, insensitive questions, just like the awkward questions that I asked when writing it – because this is how we learn. And how we start to understand.

I’m apprehensive about how the book will be received by the trans community but I hope they’ll feel that I’ve treated the subject with care. The problem is that on both sides of the debate, there are so few nuances, so few shades of grey, that it feels like it has to be all or nothing. That you’re either an ally or an antagonist. But I’m not sure that life is quite so simple.

Or, indeed, quite so binary.

My Brother’s Name Is Jessica is published by Puffin